The flood washes over us

A year ago I wrote an article discussing Hurricane Harvey.  Here we are again watching another 1 in a 1,000 year hurricane disaster unfold.  I won’t try to summarize all the other weather disasters that have been unfolding around the world this year.  This year is going to be the fourth warmest year on record behind 2016, 2015, and 2017 respectively.    Our global climate is obviously in chaos and weather disasters becoming more frequent and severe. Continue reading “The flood washes over us”

Trans-species Pidgins

Why ask anthropology to look beyond the human? And why look to animals to do so? Looking at animals, who look back at us, and who look with us, and who are also, ultimately, part of us, even though their lives extend well beyond us, can tell us something. It can tell us about how that which lies “beyond” the human also sustains us and makes us the beings we are and those we might become.  – Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human

One of the most frustrating things about Western civilization is its relentless anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism.  Most of us modern, Western, scientific humans think that we are the only truly conscious beings, the only beings that can think, feel, and communicate.  Itʻs a form of blindness or self-mutilation, in my opinion, as if we deliberately bound our feet or shut down one of our senses in order to belong to Team Civilization. Certainly such blindness makes ruthless exploitation of the natural world a lot easier on the conscience – if you consider all of it to be mindless matter then why not bring on the bulldozers?  Continue reading “Trans-species Pidgins”

Let’s put this in perspective

Despite our traits of pride and often enormous hubris sometimes the creator let’s the humans get away with most of our foolishness intact. This last hurricane – LANE – is a case in point. With all of our modern tools we tracked it all the way from the Baja, night and day with the infrared channels of the latest satellite technologies, with photographs from the International Space Station showing the giant 500 mile span of the storm, with brave men flying into the eye to measure the windspeed, and with the ominous hour by hour progress reports on all of the emergency channels, the TV, radio, and celphone alerts. It was the equivalent of a Central Pacific Region wide All Points Bulletin. We could track and measure it but in no way were we collectively able to change the course of events. Not even a little bit. And then we go about our business on the next day, knowing that some were buried in the deluge, some were burned out by the wind driven fires ahead of the rain, and to some it was just another rainy day in paradise.


The simple overwhelming fact is the Category 5 storm did not hit any of the islands at full strength. In the end, after travelling 2,500 miles, the storm dropped to Cat 3 and missed our small island by 150 miles. If it had passed closer or farther it would have been much more deadly; closer and the west coast of Hawaii island would have been raked by 130 mph winds, farther and the outer circulation would have had an open run with 75-80 mph winds without hitting the bulk of our sheltering Mauna Loa. We should be down on our knees kissing the ground and thanking our lucky stars. It let us live.

Down here at Ka Lae it was just another day at the beach, another day in paradise. No amount of engaged civic planning, no committee meetings deciding our fate, no proclamations from our leaders had the least effect. The simple fact was the the creator let us get away with it. The gods of the winds spared us.

22h BATS + HOT CHOC

We were at a campsite in Brittany this summer, in a green valley thick with oak woods.  On our second night there was an announcement on the chalkboard outside the reception hut:

22h BATS + HOT CHOC

BRING TORCH AND MUG

Who could resist?

10pm that night we turned up at the hut, and followed a trail of waggling torch beams around to the river side of the the old mill building. The group of 15 or so people, parents and kids, gathered to listen to the campsite owner,  himself a dad with young kids.

The mill was a hundred and fifty years old, and disused for half a century. A big, broken, rusty old mill wheel, like something off a paddle steamer, leaned against the rough stone wall. We could make out the black rectangles of window openings along the upper story, where the bats live. 500 of them. The second largest colony of their species in France. By this hour most of them had come out to feed, and by torchlight we could pick out two or three zipping back and forth across the surface of the dark water.

Our host directed a handheld monitor towards them and it crackled like a Geiger counter, translating inaudible squeaks into something we could process. We learned that while human hearing goes up to about 30kHz and dogs to 60kHz, these little critters operate at 120kHz.

They fly blind but see by echolocation, snapping up a midge every couple of seconds. In two or three hours of the night they’ll consume twice their own weight in midge. I guess that means coming home weighing three times what you did when you kissed the family goodbye and flew off to work.

If you’ve ever been in the Scottish highlands or similar latitudes on a summer evening and tried to swat a midge, you’ll know it can’t be done. They’re fast, and practically too tiny to see. To them, we must be as big as the Eiffel Tower, and almost as immobile. But the bats have got midges figured.

Clever little things! There are over a thousand species of bat in this world, filling niches across the land.  Much reduced in total number these days as their habitats have been occupied or eliminated, but this wooded valley, with its appealing old mill building and unpolluted, midge-rich river, is a still a niche that needs them.

Another canny feature of their lives that our host told us about: in autumn the bats congregate at a wooded spot downstream to meet and mingle with other colonies. They mate, but the females don’t fertilize until spring, once they’re sure it’s going to be a good season for foraging. They raise a single baby bat every one or two years.

The hot chocolate was ladled from a big shiny vat, and was as good as any I’ve ever tasted.

The Game-Changer

There is a long struggle ahead of us and the outlines of that struggle just got a little more clear this week, when Elizabeth Warren, the Senator from Massachusetts, introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act, which is about nothing much less than  changing the game.   Her legislation calls for corporations that make over $1 billion a year to be formally responsible not just to their shareholders but also to their workers, customers, and communities – which last concept hopefully extends to the environment.  This is important because at present the board of directors and the management of corporations are legally bound to maximize economic return.  That is the only criteria – other than not breaking the law – with which they are allowed to make decisions.  This dictate is the backbone of capitalism as we know it, which is to say a most predatory, ruthless, and myopic kind of capitalism which sooner or later is going to get us all killed.

Of course the spokespersons for the titans of industry and finance say not only is Elizabeth Warren “batty” but also that  she is a Communist who must be shut up or all the businesses in America will move to Switzerland ( I kid you not.)   Because heaven knows American Capitalism  Will Not Survive being responsible for anything but making as much money as possible!  Such a fragile flower cannot be asked to clean up its own room or do the dishes.

As the incomparable Charles Pierce puts it:

This is one of the first complete frontal assaults on the economic theories that have ruled American politics in one form or another for the past four decades. It is one of the first substantial efforts to treat the ascendancy of conservative economic ideas as a thoroughgoing blight that must be reversed, and it does so by turning the achievements of which conservative economic ideologues are proudest back on them. Corporate personhood? OK, then we’re going to have corporate jail, too. A rising tide lifts all boats? We’re going to be sure everyone has a seat.

Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act is significant – perhaps even world-historically significant – but her legislation is just one point in a change in the air, in the mood, in a growing awareness.   She has brought up into the bright light of the national political debate  a simmering knowledge that what we do in pursuit of business success  has complex consequences and those consequences are not adequately weighed and measured in the quarterly accounting of profit and loss, of Return On Investment, and Asset Liquidity.  The long struggle will be to make this point over and over again – that we  all must be responsible to a greater conception of the good and profitable – until it becomes common knowledge and the way we do things.

I tell you what…I’m signing on to her team.

Deliverance and hope

It rained for the first time in three months the other day, a deliverance of a sort. The hurricane Hector had come farther and farther north, closer and closer the whole week as it made its way west from the Baja, then skirted the south part of the island as it roared by, dragging a little rain in its wake. A near miss. No real wind and a little rain. A godsend. The fires had been loose around the island for some time so the crews finally had some needed help. The pastures have begun to green again in quick response.

Deliverance and hope.

But then the news that my brother Bryan had worsened. He had been undergoing treatment for a blood cancer, had endured the lengthy ups and downs of chemo and isolation, a second bone marrow transplant, and surgeries, until the doctors said at this point he was not coming back. His wife and daughter were beyond exhaustion. Bryan awoke long enough to say the sun is good, and he wanted to go to the sun.

There are no coincidences, and today NASA launched the first ever spacecraft toward the sun, designed to spiral in ever closer over many years…

The owl came at dusk and circled once to tell us it was time.


Tonight the Perseids meteor showers blossomed, glowing tears across the sky, sorrow and celebration all at once…

Safe passage Bryan on your journey to the sun… Sail on

Wahinenohomauna

This beautiful and rare little fern that lives in the forest above the ranch has an equally beautiful name:  wahinenohomauna, which means woman (wahine) seated on or living on (noho) the mountain (mauna).   She is no bigger than the palm of your hand and  sits among the even smaller ferns and mosses that make up a kind of green fur on  the trunk of a giant tree fern. In Hawaiian culture the high forest is wao akua or the realm of the gods.  Here is one little god living in beauty – ferns upon ferns upon ferns.

On a Montana Farm Tour: Small Innovations that Could Mean a Lot

Central Montana, it turns out, is having the best year for farms in recent memory, with round bales of hay in dense profusion on the landscape,  luxuriant fields of barley undulating in the wind, thick stands of golden wheat ripening under the sun, and happy, fat cattle.  Our first stop on our farm tour was a young farmer – Curt Myllymaki – on a large cattle and field crop farm (over 1000 acres) who is experimenting at scale with innovative crop rotations, dual cropping, and cover crops to restore soil fertility.   We visited a field that was dual cropped with flax and chickpeas, as well as some stray sunflowers that “was left over in the seed hopper.” Continue reading “On a Montana Farm Tour: Small Innovations that Could Mean a Lot”

A spatter of rain

It cooled for a while this evening, then an unsatisfying spatter of rain, no more than a few specks here and there, then back to how it was.

The satellite photos above, from NASA, show England and Wales at the start of May, and a few days ago.

It’s been hot and dry for that entire period. The driest early summer since records began, but hot with it too. Hot in a way that’s not right. 

There are certain protocols to the weather in these islands, and we grow up with those protocols in our bones. We indulge the rain and leaden skies because we know they won’t last. We’re always unprepared for snow, but the snow won’t last either, so why bother organizing defences. And we’re always surprised by sunny days, the better to seize on them with  bonhomie and glee.

Heatwaves are not unknown – there is a place in the protocols for such treats.  A heatwave may last a long weekend, or longer, up to two or three weeks in one of those legendary summers we all recall and still speak of. But not like this one. This one had outstayed its welcome by late May.

Where’s the fun in gabbing about the weather – our famous national pastime – when its presiding spirit is no longer playing along?

We had a disproportionately heavy and bitterly cold dump of Siberian snow across the land one weird weekend in March, which ironically stripped the supermarkets of chilled meat and fish and dairy products for up to three weeks. (A surprising sign of how unresilient our food supply chain is.) And now this.

So, these days, my heart sinks a little every morning when I draw the curtains and see today’s sky will be the same as yesterday’s, and the day before’s. For a while I was pleading, wishing in my mind for rain. I miss it. The playing fields and roadside verges converted to baked earth and straw appear to me like something from an alien land. But rain will come eventually, the land will green again. No-one is going to die for lack of a mouthful of clean water on this island, not this year. Maybe there’ll be lasting damage to agriculture. I don’t know. What I’m really wishing for is for this climate change thing not to be happening. But the weather is telling me it’s not a bad dream. This is really happening.

In public, there’s an unspoken accord not to connect the “heatwave” with climate change. Even though this is exactly what the long-term forecasts have been saying would happen, for years now. Intensifying extremes. The arctic overheats, the jet stream gets disrupted and slowed, and air masses stagnate in place. Once-in-a-hundred-year weather events become once-in-twenty-year then once-in-five-year events. And like when steroid-pumped Roger McGwire and Barry Bonds were smashing the home-run records – what was going on was clear from the mounting tally of homers, even though no individual big hit could be pinned on the drugs.

So, that’s how it is here, this summer, on this patch of the northern hemisphere. How’s it where you are?